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NABJ Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report



NABJ Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report


Francis Ward

NABJ Founder


The conclusions of the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 shocked most white Americans. They had already been shocked by the persistent riots and urban explosions every summer since 1964.

But the Commission's finding that America was more and more a land of two societies, one black, one white, was a riveting awakening for white Americans. No longer could anyone hide behind the illusion of "separate but equal." Black Americans always knew separate and unequal was  the norm.  But now the entire nation was confronted with the truth.

The Kerner Report challenged white Americans to make good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence "that all men  [and women]  were created  equal." The Report also made clear that rights guaranteed to every American under the Constitution were but mere words on paper  until those rights were enforced by our government.

The Report stirred much discussion, debate and disagreement about racism in America and what to do about it. Many of the Report's critics disputed its findings and clung to the fallacy that America was still the land of perfection without error.

Black journalists are particularly indebted to the Kerner Report.  It harshly criticized the mainstream white press for persistently failing to report on and examine the structural racist practices which were dividing the country into separate and unequal societies. The Report also cited the pitifully small number of black journalists who worked at white news organizations.

The response was a modest and uneven effort by white media to hire more black reporters and photographers. Prior to 1968, only a small number of  news organizations had hired  any blacks. Television news - still relatively new and maturing at the time - had almost none at local TV stations and at the three broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and NBC.  (Cable television had yet  to arrive.)

The upsurge in hiring of black journalists was one of the driving forces in the founding of the National Association of Black Journalists in 1975.

When one looks at the number of black and other journalists of color throughout American media, it's hard to imagine there was a time, pre-1968, when the mainstream white media were almost completely bereft of any color at all.

However, this doesn't mean we should be complacent. We still need more conscious and committed journalists of color. And the slow pace of promotion and upward mobility shows there's much room for improvement.

Does this mean that 50 years after Kerner, we need a new awakening, another shock to the system?

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